Learn true meanings of words

Words have power. Anyone who has been the victim of grade school or high school bullying can attest to that, cruel words of others can have a harsh, lasting psychological effect. By the time these children become young adults and enter the world of higher education — college, that is — most have grown beyond the point in their lives where petty bullying and physical harassment are unnecessary for social well-being. Despite the equality that should pervade every college campus, if not every American town, tacit discrimination is becoming more and more prominent. Most of the offenders have no idea that what they're saying is offensive, and the ones who do have some ill-formed logic to try to make them seem innocuous. But, derogatory terms describing gay people are finding themselves increasingly commonplace in our vernacular, which is shocking not only due to this generation's lack of creative vocabulary, but at the underlying implications about gays that the words carry while flung about with ease.

Just to be clear, the words I am talking about are "gay," "fag," "queer," and "homo." Let us delve into a short etymology lesson.

The term gay has only been used to describe homosexuality in recent times. It was originally used to describe something happy or joyous up until about the 16th century. In that time period, gay became used to describe any type of frivolous, promiscuous behavior. As such, a prostitute would be called a gay woman and a womanizing bachelor a gay man. Conversely, married folk who were chaste and monogamous were referred to as straight, since their behavior was parallel with the religious and moral standards of the time. In the late 19th century, it become more common to label homosexuals as gay because social restraints on open homosexuality left gay men and women more likely to become bachelors, and homosexuality was misunderstood — all homoerotic behavior seemed unnatural to the (mostly) straight public. The term queer, much like gay, was used to describe sexual nuances and differentiate between homo and heterosexual behaviors.

Faggot — perhaps the worst word of this bunch to grace conversation daily — has horrifying roots. As some people know, and tried as an excuse for using the word at one point in middle school, the term faggot was originally used to mean a bundle of sticks, or a similarly unwieldy object. As such, the term should carry the same mistaken innocence in describing gays, right?

Wrong. Many historians believe that the bundles of sticks described by the word became associated with homosexuals because they were used as kindling to burn them and other heretics to oppressive Christian rule in Europe. That's right. The association between sticks and gays was that the bundles of sticks were literally used to burn gays alive. Other sources say that the term comes from the Yiddish word "faygele," literally translated as little bird, which was used to describe — quite crassly I might add — the supposed dainty and effeminate behavior of gay men.

Sure, the histories of the words are interesting, but do they have any relevance in today's society? Absolutely. Each of the colloquial terms in questions were coined and used to describe otherness in a group of people. These words, even when used casually, evoke a long and painful past for gay men and women. Similar derogatory words, like the N-word, were nearly wholesale abandoned by the general public after the civil rights movement for this exact reason. That word, now only in use by bigots or rappers for different reasons entirely, is out of vogue in the public sphere. I can guarantee that a student using the N-word to casually describe something undesirable would receive a less than desirable treatment. Many times a day I hear students call bad classes gay or people that aren't to their liking fags and people hardly give it a second thought.

Gays in the United States are still, in many senses, second-class citizens. They are unable to marry in most states, are rarely awarded the same amnesty given to public displays of affection made by straight couples and still face biases and prejudices like those previously mentioned — and some even harsher still. It was only 12 years ago that Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten to death in Wyoming because he was gay. Twelve years later, gays still lack many privileges awarded to straights and discrimination, explicit or implicit, still goes by largely unchecked.

The use of the words gay, fag, queer and homo are a testament to homophobia's remnant grasp on popular society. It takes a genuinely strong individual to take these reminders of 100 of years of hatred in stride, especially when they are used so freely in today's world. By refraining, we can take one more step toward equality and acceptance — two principles upon which this nation was founded. Perhaps Rev. William Sloane Coffin summed it up best: "In reality, there are no biblical literalists, only selective literalists. By abolishing slavery and ordaining women, millions of Protestants have gone far beyond biblical literalism. It's time we did the same for homophobia." It's time for us to grow up.

Cody Gorman is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science. His column, "The Tuning Fork," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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